Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Crescent
It's 6:54 a.m. on Monday, February 21, 2000, and I've just arrived at the Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans, where I will be boarding Train #20, the northbound Crescent, on my way to New York. I arrived very late last night (or, perhaps more accurately, very early this morning) on the Sunset Limited from Houston, which was running seven hours late due to a series of mishaps west of San Antonio. I spent just over four hours in my room at the Queen and Crescent Hotel, which I had reserved in advance, checking my e-mail and catching a little sleep. I got out of bed around 6:00 a.m. this morning, took a shower, checked out, and then decided to walk over to the station. (At least this way I would get a little exercise and see a little bit of the city!) I made a slight detour over to Canal Street -- normally a bustling center of activity, but quite deserted early this holiday morning -- and then followed Loyola Avenue over to the station. By the time I arrived, the final boarding announcement was being made, so I bypassed the station building and walked directly over to my train. I boarded my sleeping car #62024, named National View, at 6:57 a.m., and proceeded to my Room #3. This is the fourth consecutive Amtrak trip in which I have been assigned Room #3 in my sleeper! Maybe my computer is programmed to pick this number all the time. It seems like an amazing coincidence! I just about had time to get settled when we left at 7:02 a.m., two minutes late.
Today's northbound Crescent is pulled by two P-40 Genesis engines (with both engines facing forward) and includes a baggage car, a crew dorm car, two Viewliner sleepers, a diner, an unreconditioned lounge car, four coaches and a baggage car (probably used for mail storage) at the rear. Since I boarded the train right before departure, I did not have a chance to walk down to the head end and record the numbers of the engines and baggage car, but I was able to do so when we stopped at Birmingham. Interestingly, the dining car and the lounge car are the same cars that were on the Crescent when I took it last February. The diner, #8514, is an ex-New York Central car built in 1948, and the lettering "New York Central" is still visible on the name board on the side of the car. And I also could observe "Santa Fe" lettering on baggage car #1230.
I watched from my room as we passed the famous above-ground cemeteries on the outskirts of New Orleans. Then I attempted to walk back to the coaches, but the dining and lounge cars were not yet open for service, so I returned to my room. Soon, we began to run alongside Lake Ponchartrain, visible to the left of the train, and then we crossed the lake on a six-mile-long causeway. Last year, it was misty for the lake crossing, but today it is perfectly clear. You can see the highway bridge to the right, but other than that, nothing is visible except for the lake.
At 7:55 a.m., precisely on schedule, we stopped briefly at Slidell to pick up one or two passengers. The classic brick station here is currently in the process of being restored.
By now, the diner and lounge were open for service, so I decided to walk down to the rear of the train. I found that there were about 75 passengers on board. The first coach, which had been reconditioned with blue seats, was used for the ten-or- so passengers traveling to Washington and points north. The second coach, an unreconditioned one, was used for local passengers. This car was quite full, with about 45 passengers occupying the 60 available seats. There were about 20 passengers in the third coach, but no seat checks were visible in this car. I started talking to a young man sitting towards the front of the car who explained to me that everyone in this car was going to Atlanta. (I guess that since everyone here was going to the same destination, it was felt that it was unnecessary to put out seat checks.) This man had also been on last night's very late Sunset Limited, which he had boarded in San Antonio, having connected from the Texas Eagle. Since the Eagle arrived about 1:00 a.m., he had to wait in the station for ten hours until the Sunset arrived. Last night, he spent the five hours between the arrival of the Sunset and the departure of the Crescent at the New Orleans station. He explained that although the station is normally closed between 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m., an exception was made last night to permit connecting passengers to remain at the station.
Soon we crossed the Pearl River and entered Mississippi. Our next stop was Picayune, where -- like last year -- we paused for a minute to permit a single passenger to board. There is a very short platform here, and shelter for waiting passengers is provided by a open wooden pavilion, some distance back from the tracks, which seems to serve more as a recreational facility than as a railroad station. The doors to the train were promptly closed, but we waited another five minutes while a freight train, with a Southern Pacific engine in the lead, passed us to the left. When we finally started moving again at 8:28 a.m., we were 12 minutes late.
I now went to the diner for breakfast, but no table was set up for me yet, so I returned to my room and came back to the diner a few minutes later. I was seated opposite a young woman who was going to Birmingham. She was not very friendly, and we hardly spoke at all during the meal. The attendant promptly served me a breakfast consisting of orange juice, coffee, Cheerios and a very nice plate of fresh strawberries. During breakfast, we stopped for about five minutes waiting for a freight train, with three Union Pacific engines, to pass us.
When I finished eating, I returned to my room and started working on these memoirs. I started talking to the woman in the room opposite me. She had also been on last night's Sunset Limited, having boarded at Del Rio, Texas, and would be getting off at Greensboro, North Carolina, where we are scheduled to arrive at 3:04 a.m. Like me, she got a hotel room for the few hours we were in New Orleans last night, but she won't be able to get all that much sleep tonight because of our arrival at Greensboro in the wee hours of the morning.
We arrived at our next stop, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, at 9:44 a.m. There is a huge, old brick station here, but most of the building is boarded up (except for a small office that is not open to passengers). The wide platform is covered by a very large wooden canopy, and two old steam engines are on display behind a chain-link fence. About a dozen passengers boarded here, including a Boy Scout group, so I was able to briefly step off here. When we departed three minutes later, we were 27 minutes late, most of our lateness having resulted from the delays we encountered passing the two freight trains.
I went back to the first coach, where the Scout group had been seated. It turned out to be a Webelos den, neatly dressed in their uniforms, that would be traveling only to the next stop, Laurel, and returning home from there later this afternoon. I suggested to their leader that they arrange to visit a sleeping car, and after I returned to my room a few minutes later, I noticed several of the boys coming by with the conductor. The boys seemed very impressed with the train and were having a very good time.
Our next stop was Laurel, where we arrived at 10:17 a.m. This is now a crew change point, and the new conductors boarded at my sleeper (along with one passenger). (Interestingly, Laurel is shown on the timetable as a flag stop, but obviously the train must stop here daily if the operating crews change here.) The large brick station building has been restored for use as a community center, but the northern part of the building is set aside as a waiting room for Amtrak. I stepped off the train very briefly here, and then we pulled forward and made a second stop to permit the Boy Scout group to detrain from their coach.
Unlike the previous conductors who took the train from New Orleans to Laurel, and who set up their shop in the lounge cars, the new conductors, who would be taking our train to Atlanta, each took over an unoccupied room in one of the sleepers. After spending some more time in my room and resting a little, I walked down towards the coaches. On the way, I stopped to talk to Ralph Horton, one of the conductors who boarded at Laurel. Ralph, who started working as a conductor for the Southern Railway 32 years ago, was only too glad to spend some time talking to me, and turned out to be one of the friendliest conductors I've ever met.
We stopped at Meridian at 11:21 a.m., and at Ralph's suggestion, I walked back to the first coach so that I could briefly step off the train. Meridian features a magnificent and very large new station, built in the traditional design. It seems incredible that only one Amtrak train in each direction stops here! The Mayor of Meridian is on the Board of Amtrak, and one of the newly refurbished Amfleet II lounge cars (which incorporates a smoking lounge) is named Meridian Club. Only about half a dozen passengers boarded the train here, and our stop -- which included the unloading of baggage -- took only three minutes. When we departed Meridian, we were 28 minutes late.
On the way back to my room, I picked up one of the fresh oranges which had been placed next to the juice and coffee at the rear of the car. The selection of complimentary beverages available -- which included herb tea -- was one of the best that I've ever seen in a sleeper on an Amtrak train. We soon crossed the state line into Alabama, and I noticed how the countryside became hillier and the rail line more curvy. We passed several freight trains, but in each case the freight train took the siding and we were able to proceed full speed ahead on the main line. I observed us cross the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers, but missed the Indian mounds that I noticed last time.
At about 12:45 p.m., I went into the dining car for lunch. The car was quite empty, and I had a table to myself. I was quickly served my chicken meal, which was very good. During lunch, at 12:56 p.m., we made a four-minute stop at the beautiful brick-and-stucco station in Tuscaloosa, where a number of passengers got on and off. Since I was in the middle of lunch, I didn't step off the train here.
My lunch went rather quickly, and about 1:15 p.m., I returned to my room. Then, at 1:37 p.m., we stopped to permit the southbound Crescent, Train #19, to pass us. I observed this train as it passed us, and noted that its consist was nearly identical to ours (although the second baggage car was placed in front rather than at the rear of the train). The southbound train seems to be running a little late, just like we are.
Soon Ralph, the conductor, passed by my room. I asked him which frequency the train communications were on. He replied that we were using Channel 56. (I had been previously experiencing difficulty in picking up train communications on my scanner, and it seems that the problem was that my scanner started picking up the communications on Channel 51, where they came through, but not at all clearly. By setting my scanner to pick up only Channel 56, I got the communications loud and clear.) It's rare to find an Amtrak conductor who is so friendly and helpful.
As we approached the outskirts of Birmingham, we crossed quite a number of rail lines, but lacking a rail atlas of the area (SPV has not yet published such an atlas), the significance of the various lines was not apparent to me. I thought that we would arrive at the Birmingham station in a few minutes, but that was not to be. Rather, at 2:04 p.m., we came to a stop. Since I was walking through the train then and not monitoring the scanner, I had no idea why we were stopping, so I inquired of Ralph, whom informed me that we were waiting for a "fast freight" to pass. We started moving again a few minutes later, but only very slowly. Soon an announcement was made that we are waiting on a freight train, but that we should arrive at the Birmingham station in about eight minutes.
We finally pulled into the Birmingham station at 2:25 p.m. I walked down the platform to record the numbers of the engines and baggage car, then walked back to the coaches, where I reboarded the train. Ralph indicated that we would be spending seven or eight minutes in Birmingham, and he turned out to be exactly right, as we left the station at 2:33 p.m. (In view of the limited amount of time available, I didn't make any attempt to walk down into the basement station.) We were still no more than 26 minutes late, but we hadn't really made up any time, despite the padding built into the schedule. As was the case when I rode this train last year, when leaving the station, the conductor has to get off the train to hand-throw a switch.
Once past the immediate industrial suburbs of Birmingham, our route traverses some very hilly country. This is probably the most scenic part of the entire trip. Once again, I walked through the coaches. There were still about 75 coach passengers on the train, but now the second coach was nearly empty, while the first and third coaches had more passengers. Then I returned to my room and watched our train negotiate the many curves that characterize this portion of our route. I began to read the travelogue of Doug Ohlemeier's Amtrak trip that I downloaded last night from the All-Aboard List. Then, at 3:22 p.m., we passed through the Chula Vista Mountain Tunnel, the only tunnel on this line. We continued through pleasant forests, a welcome change from the generally flat and rather boring scenery that characterizes most of this route. After passing some grazing lands, we began to run alongside the Anniston Army Depot, and we made a very brief stop at the Anniston station at 4:04 p.m. Since passengers were getting on and off from the sleeper in back of mine, I was able to step off the train briefly here.
Soon the steward came by to check when I wanted to eat dinner. At first I said that I would come at 6:30 p.m., but when he pointed out that 6:30 p.m. Central Time is the equivalent of 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time -- which would coincide with our station stop in Atlanta -- I decided instead that I would eat dinner upon our departure from Atlanta.
After Anniston, I decided to go to the lounge car for a change of pace. My computer was fully charged, so I brought it with me and continued working on these memoirs and writing some more reply e-mail messages. The train now travels through Talladega National Forest, with more curves and hills, and I enjoyed watching the front of the train snake around curves, with the lounge car -- further back on the train -- providing a better view than my room afforded. Seated on the other side of the car was a family with two children from Atlanta, who had traveled down to New Orleans on the train last night and were returning today. Their boys wanted to take a train trip, so they now were fulfilling their wish. The trip seems to have worked out well for them, except that their southbound train didn't arrive last night until after 9:00 p.m., so they didn't have a chance to do any sightseeing in New Orleans. Unfortunately, at 4:30 p.m. the other side of the lounge car was opened to smoking, and the odor of the smoke permeated to our side of the lounge car, too.
At about 4:55 p.m., Central Time, we passed through the small community of Talapoosa, Georgia, where the tracks run along an island in the center of the main street, and a primitive steam engine is on display alongside the tracks. We had now crossed into the Eastern Time zone, so I moved my watch one hour ahead. I watched us pass through some other small communities, such as Bremen and Villa Rica. In each case, the tracks bisected the town's main street.
About 7:00 p.m. (Eastern Time), I decided to return to my room. Indeed, shortly afterwards, the lounge car was closed and all passengers were requested to return to their seats or rooms. On the way, I said goodbye to Ralph, the conductor, who would be getting off the train at Atlanta.
Unlike the case with many other major cities, the station in Atlanta is situated right on the main line, and trains can approach it at track speed. So we proceeded at a steady pace until, at 7:25 p.m., we arrived at the Peachtree Street Station in Atlanta.
This station -- which was originally built by the Southern Railway in 1918 as a small suburban station -- has now become the main Amtrak station for Atlanta. Although beautiful from an architectural point of view, it is really too small to serve as the main Atlanta station. Formerly, the station could be reached from the platform only by a long stairway, but an elevator was installed recently, and the size of the station expanded somewhat. It is now barely adequate for the one train a day that stops here.
Since the train is not scheduled to leave Atlanta until 7:46 p.m., I went upstairs and checked my messages, then walked around the exterior of the station and returned to the train. By the time I reached the one coach where passengers were boarding, it was 7:42 p.m. I wanted to walk back to the rear end of the train to check the numbers of the MHC cars added in Atlanta, but there wasn't enough time to do so, so I reboarded the train and walked back to my room. We departed at 7:48 p.m., only two minutes late. By now, virtually all of the rooms in both sleepers were filled, with many sleeping car passengers having boarded in Atlanta.
A few minutes after we departed from Atlanta, the steward came through our car to tell us that the dining car was now again open for dinner. I walked down to the diner, where I was seated with two men also traveling in the sleepers. One man worked for a computer business. He lived in Newport, R.I., and was traveling on this train from Atlanta to New York (where he would be connecting with a train for Rhode Island). The other man was a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, teaching the rather esoteric subject of agricultural irrigation. He had boarded the train in New Orleans and would be traveling to Washington, where he would be switching to a Springfield train.
The two men both ordered pork chops for dinner, while I had a beef meal. All of our meals were served very promptly, and my meal was delicious. Service of the dessert was a little slower, and we spent about an hour eating dinner. Although an announcement was made over the loudspeaker that the dining car was open for all passengers, very few coach passengers chose to eat dinner at this time, probably because of the relatively late departure of the train. During dinner, we stopped at the charming brick station in Gainesville for three minutes and departed at 8:43 p.m., still two minutes late.
After dinner, I walked back to the coaches, where I found that the rear two coaches were closed off (everyone sitting in the third coach had detrained in Atlanta), and that all of the 90-or-so passengers aboard were seated in the first two coaches. There were 50 passengers occupying the 60 available seats in the first coach, designated for passengers going to Washington and points north, and about 40 passengers in the second coach, designated for local passengers. Obviously, almost everyone in the first coach had to sit next to someone else. Had I been in that coach, I know that I would have been quite upset, since there were two coaches on the train that were entirely empty. Fortunately, I have a sleeper, so the unnecessary crowding in the coaches is no concern of mine. But I really wonder why Amtrak doesn't make an effort to let people spread out more when -- as is the case tonight -- there is plenty of room to permit people to do so.
The next stop shown on the timetable is Toccoa, a flag stop. No one was scheduled to get on or off here, and the conductor so advised the engineer, who slowed down as we approached the station, but continued on without stopping once he was satisfied that no one was waiting to board the train.
We stopped briefly at Clemson, S.C. at 9:58 p.m., where one passenger boarded the train. Clemson appears to have a very nice station, but I didn't get a chance to look at it very closely, since it was dark and we went by fairly quickly.
I started reading Steve Grande's story about a trip of his on the Crescent in 1997. This was Steve's first trip in a Viewliner bedroom, and he used the opportunity to describe in very great detail every single feature of the economy bedroom -- pointing out, for example, that each room contains precisely 46 buttons! (I counted them, and Steve was right.) Soon, though, I started getting rather sleepy -- rather understandable, given the very limited sleep that I had last night. I decided, though, that I would not go to bed until after our next stop, Greenville, S.C., since we are scheduled to spend five minutes there.
We arrived at Greenville one minute early at 10:34 p.m. The conductor confirmed that we would be spending a few minutes here and indicated that it would be fine for me to step off for a little fresh air. (I think, though, that I was the only passenger who took advantage of this opportunity to step off the train.) So I walked to the back of the train and recorded the numbers of the three MHC cars that had been added to the train in Atlanta. Then I stepped briefly into the small, modern station, which is part of a large building which contains offices for the Norfolk Southern Railroad. About ten passengers boarded the train here, and they were all crammed into the two front coaches, which were already pretty full. As soon as all passengers had gotten on the train, I reboarded, and we left at 10:39 p.m., one minute early.
Now it was time to go to sleep. Unlike the Superliner cars, the Viewliner cars have an extra level of windows which permit you to see out of the upper berth. And by sleeping in the upper rather than the lower berth, you can leave all your belongings on the seats below and don't have to put them away. Moreover, the upper berth lowers from the ceiling merely by turning a handle, and is much easier to put into place than the lower berth. Finally, the bedding for the lower berth is stored in the upper berth, so by sleeping up there, you get to sleep on two sets of bedding, adding to your comfort. For all of these reasons, I always sleep in the upper berth when I travel in a Viewliner bedroom.
I lowered the upper berth, set up the safety straps to prevent you from rolling out of bed, and climbed in. It took me a little while to fall asleep, and I remained awake for our stop at Spartanburg, S.C., where we arrived seven minutes early at 11:16 p.m. and left a minute early. Soon afterwards, I fell asleep. I did wake up several times during the night, and was awake during our stop in Charlotte, N.C., where we left on time at 1:19 a.m. But I managed to sleep through our stops in Gastonia, Salisbury, High Point, Greensboro, Danville and Lynchburg -- rather unusual for me! I guess I really needed some sleep!
Before I went to sleep, I turned down the thermostat in the room, since I like to sleep in a relatively cool room. But I forgot to ask the attendant for an extra blanket, which I should have done. As a result, I was not quite as warm as I should have been, but this did not prevent me from enjoying the very comfortable accommodations and getting a good night's sleep.
I finally woke up for good about 5:45 a.m. I remained in bed for the next hour or so, listening to the scanner and looking at the passing scenery. About 6:40 a.m., as we were approaching Charlottesville, I heard on the scanner that we have an approach signal (meaning that we can proceed only at a restricted speed, prepared to stop at the next signal), and then the next signal was red. So we stopped here for about ten minutes prior to arriving at the station. The Norfolk Southern line crosses the CSX (ex-C&O) line here at grade, and that was the reason for the red signal. (I subsequently was told that a long CSX coal train came by at this time.) Finally, we got a green signal, and we pulled into the Charlottesville station at 7:00 a.m.
Quite a few people were waiting to board the train here, and the timetable indicates that our station stop is supposed to take six minutes, so I decided to step off the train here. A couple were getting off from the sleeping car behind mine, so I detrained with them and walked back along the platform to the third coach, where the coach passengers were boarding the train. It was rather cold out -- much colder than it had been down South! I took a picture of the new Amtrak station here -- a rather small ex-Railway Express Building that was recently renovated, with the old station now being converted to some other use -- but there was not enough time to go inside the building, which is located some distance from the tracks. I reboarded at the third coach, and we departed at 7:04 a.m., 19 minutes late. It seems that we were running on time until we were delayed by the stop signal just south of the Charlottesville station.
On the way back to my room, I walked through the three coaches that were now open. All of them were quite crowded, with about 160 coach passengers on board, and at least 50 people in each of the three coaches that were open. The rear coach remained closed, though. Now I was even more glad that I had chosen to travel in a sleeper. It is very unlikely that I would have been able to retain two seats to myself, and I don't think I would have enjoyed spending the night in one of these very crowded coaches. By contrast, my sleeping accommodations were luxurious and delightful.
I returned to my room and decided to take a shower. When I walked over to the shower in my car, though, I found that the small changing room outside the shower was filled with a large suitcase and a bag of trash! I checked the water and found that it was operating, so I moved the suitcase into the attendant's room across the hall and put the trash bag in the adjacent vestibule of the car. There was no soap available in the shower room, but I had taken a bar from my room. The water for the shower was very warm; indeed, at one point it got too hot and I had to lower the temperature. Then I returned to my room and got dressed.
I should note, at this point, that the storage of luggage in the Viewliner sleepers is handled very differently than in the Superliner sleepers. In the Superliners, there is very little space in your room to store any luggage, and you normally leave most of your luggage in the large storage racks on the lower level of the car. In the Viewliners, though, there is no space provided outside your room for the storage of luggage. However, there is a luggage storage rack in your room near the ceiling, in space that is actually above the adjacent corridor. On the one hand, this is nice, since you can keep your luggage in your room with you. But on the other hand, this storage rack is located about seven feet above the floor, and you have to lift your luggage up to get it in there. Moreover, if you have a very large suitcase, it might be necessary to lower the upper berth to provide sufficient room to maneuver it into place. Finally, it is difficult to access your luggage when stored in this small space, so in order to get fresh clothes for today, I had to take my suitcase down, remove the needed items, and then replace it.
Soon after our brief stop at Culpeper, Virginia at 7:55 a.m. the attendant came by, and I mentioned to him that I had taken the suitcase and trash bag out of the shower room so that I could take a shower. He responded that that was fine. Well, I'm glad that it was fine with him, but I'm sure that very few passengers would have taken the initiative to remove these items in order to take a shower! But I guess I can't fully blame the attendant, since there really is no other space in the car to store anything. This is one major problem with the Viewliner sleepers, which otherwise offer very comfortable and even luxurious accommodations.
I remained in my room and updated these memoirs. At 8:27 a.m., we stopped at the beautiful brick station in Manassas, which still features the original wood paneling on the lower portion of the waiting room. A number of passengers were waiting to board here, and we made two stops. The first stop apparently was for the sole purpose of permitting the conductor to detrain and bring several cups of coffee to the engineers, while the passengers boarded the train at the second stop. When we departed at 8:32 a.m., we were 21 minutes late.
Since we would soon be arriving in Washington, I decided to go to the dining car for breakfast. By this time, the dining car was largely empty, and I had a table to myself. I got the same cold breakfast that I had ordered yesterday, except that I wasn't served a large plate of strawberries this time. Since no one else was sitting at my table, I started reading an article in today's Washington Post about the relationship of the states of Maryland and Virginia with CSX, over which both MARC and VRE (the commuter rail agencies of the respective states) operate. The continuation of the article had the heading "Politics Fueling Disparities in Md., Va. Commuter Trains," and the article's theme was that CSX is well-connected politically to Virginia's high state officials, with the result that it provides excellent service on the VRE line, while it has essentially no political ties to the State of Maryland, resulting in freight trains being given priority over MARC commuter trains on the CSX lines in Maryland. There may well be some truth to the allegations made, but the article is sure to generate a strong denial from CSX!
I heard a woman who was sitting at an adjacent table explain to her seat mate that she had taken a Greyhound bus from New York to New Orleans, and that Amtrak was "like heaven" compared to Greyhound. She went on to say that she was just served with a subpoena to appear in a court case in New York as a material witness, and was threatened with arrest in Louisiana if she didn't return to New York by Wednesday. So, she said, she had two alternatives -- either pay $150 to travel by Amtrak, or pay about $1,000 to go by plane. (Like many people, she wasn't aware of the option of taking AirTran Airlines, on which she could have almost certainly obtained a one-way ticket from New Orleans to New York on very short notice for much less than $1,000.)
During breakfast, we passed a Norfolk Southern Triple Crown Roadrailer train, which was waiting on a siding while we proceeded ahead on the main track. Then, at 9:00 a.m., we came to a brief stop as a VRE commuter train passed us to the right.
I remained in the dining car during our two-minute stop in Alexandria, where we arrived at 9:14 a.m., and then watched as we crossed the Potomac River on the Long Bridge, with the landmark buildings of our nation's capitol visible in the background. (Perhaps that's why my sleeper is named National View!) Then I returned to my room.
At 9:31 a.m., we arrived at Union Station in Washington, D.C. As I was walking down the aisle of my sleeper to detrain, I saw that there was an Amtrak business card tag attached to the bag of the woman in front of me. Looking at it closely, I noticed that her name was Erica Underdown, and that her title was Executive Secretary to the President. She was George Warrington's personal secretary, who was traveling from Atlanta to Washington, where she would be going to work this morning. (It's a good thing that we are on time arriving in Washington!) I asked her how she liked her boss, and she replied that George was a great person to work for and that she enjoyed the job very much. Well, I guess I couldn't have expected her to say anything else, but the encounter was a very interesting one. And it is nice to know that someone in this capacity would choose to travel by train rather than flying!
I briefly walked upstairs, where I noticed that the electronic monitors indicated that all trains shown would be arriving on time. Then I returned to our train. Although the timetable states that our train is not scheduled to leave Washington until 10:05 a.m., all stops from Alexandria north are made only to discharge passengers, and the train can therefore leave earlier than the time set forth in the timetable. Both my attendant and the conductor indicated that we would be spending only 15 minutes in Washington, so I didn't want to go too far away from the train.
When I went back down to the train, I noticed that a switch engine had removed the rear MHC car (added in Atlanta) from the train. Then I walked down the platform, where I started talking to the coach attendant, asking him why the rearmost car was not opened to passengers at any point during the trip. He replied that it wasn't necessary to do so, but that he would have opened the car if needed to accommodate more passengers. I told him that had I been a coach passenger, I would have been rather upset if I had to sit next to someone else while another coach on the train was empty and unused.
When we departed Washington at 9:53 a.m., twelve minutes early, I took my computer and moved to Room #8 across the hall, where I continued working on these memoirs. I found the sun glare on my computer to be rather annoying, and Room #8 -- along with a number of other rooms in my car -- was now vacant. I remained here during our stop in Baltimore at 10:30 a.m.
About ten minutes north of Baltimore, we passed an interesting Amtrak train, consisting of an AEM-7 electric engine, five material handling cars, and Heritage coach #7605 at the rear. This, I believe, was Amtrak's mail train #13, which originates in the middle of the night in Springfield, Mass., and arrives in Washington in the morning. This train does not carry passengers, and the Heritage coach at the rear is an unreconditioned car used as a rider coach for the crew. At this point, we were creeping along very slowly. Then, at 10:45 a.m., we were passed to the left by Metroliner #108, scheduled to depart Baltimore at 10:36 a.m., which was understandably given priority over our train. Soon we switched to another track and resumed our normal speed. At one point, I clocked the train as having covered a mile in 36 seconds, which translates to 100 miles an hour.
At 10:50 a.m., the dining car steward came by and announced the one and only sitting for lunch. It's a little early for lunch, of course, but one of the most annoying practices of Amtrak is its insistence that all food service cars be completely cleaned before arrival at the train's final destination. To facilitate this, the dining car staff requires everyone to eat lunch soon after we depart from Baltimore, even though it will be another three hours or so before we arrive in New York. Not only is this practice annoying to Amtrak's sleeping car "guests," who are forced to eat their complimentary meal at an unreasonable hour (or, of course, to forego it entirely), but it also strongly discourages patronage of the dining car by coach passengers, who have to pay for their meals. So when I went to the dining car for lunch, it was largely empty, and I was seated at a table by myself.
But I was soon joined by a coach passenger, Bruce, who had boarded the train this morning in Charlottesville and was headed to New York. Although he lives with his wife in Charlottesville, he now works as a computer specialist in New York, and commutes back and forth every two weeks. He used to fly, but found the trip quite stressful, given the need to get to the airport and be subjected to a search, and also experienced many delays on the part of the airlines. By contrast, he has found the train a more civilized way to travel, pointing to the larger seats provided, the convenient location of the station (Bruce works right across the street from Penn Station in New York), the superior food, and Amtrak's excellent on-time record! The last comment might be viewed as somewhat surprising but, as I pointed out to Bruce, the Crescent probably has the best on-time record of any of Amtrak's long-distance trains. We had a fascinating conversation, mainly about Amtrak and computers. Of course, our meals arrived very promptly, but we took our time eating, and were the last ones out of the dining car when we returned to our seats at about 11:45 a.m. -- after our station stop in Wilmington. This lunch meal was the first time on this trip that I had been seated with a person who wanted to carry on an interesting conversation, and from this perspective, it was the best meal of the entire trip!
At precisely 12:00 noon, we arrived at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. This is where we change to an electric engine, and I knew that we would have to spend some time here. Both my attendant and the conductor indicated that our stop would last for about 15 minutes, so I detrained and walked upstairs, where I checked my messages and made another phone call. After about 12 minutes, I went back to Stairway 8 to reboard my train. Somewhat to my surprise, an Amtrak attendant was stationed there and asked me for my ticket. Of course, I had my ticket stub with me and showed it to him, but I was a little surprised at this procedure, which I don't recall seeing previously. When I got downstairs, I discovered that a southbound Metroliner was about to arrive on the opposite track. Presumably, that is the reason that someone was stationed upstairs to check tickets. I walked towards the front of our train, where electric E-60 engine #607 was being attached, and then returned to my room. We departed from Philadelphia at 12:24 p.m.
Since the sun glare in my room was still annoying, I took my computer and moved back across the hall to Room #8. Soon, a man came over to me and asked me if I recognized him. I immediately realized that he was an Amtrak employee that I had encountered on some previous trip of mine, but it took me a few seconds to figure out exactly who he was. He was Michael Steinberg, a dining car attendant on the California Zephyr which I took three weeks ago from Chicago to Sacramento. Aside from the fact that he has the same name as one of my former Scouts, it would be hard to forget his jovial approach to his assigned tasks. Michael explained to me that he has friends all over the country, and often deadheads on Amtrak trains to visit his various friends during his days off. I guess it's not entirely surprising that Michael would remember me!
Before I knew it, we were crossing the Delaware River, with the shining gold dome of the New Jersey state capitol in the background, and we arrived in Trenton at 12:55 p.m. The conductor opened the door of my car, and I stepped out on the platform here during our two-minute stop. When we left Trenton, we were 23 minutes early.
I had originally planned to take the train all the way to Penn Station, New York. It's nice to ride an Amtrak long- distance train from one end to the other! But I wanted to end my trip by taking the NJ Transit 2:35 p.m. Pascack Valley Line train from Hoboken to Anderson Street, Hackensack. To be relatively sure of making this train, I had to catch the 2:07 p.m. PATH train from the 33rd Street Station in New York, one block away from Penn Station. And it now appeared that we might not arrive in New York in time to make this train. On the other hand, I could also catch the PATH train in Newark, and although I would have to switch trains at Journal Square and Pavonia, or at Exchange Place, I would almost certainly have enough time to catch my 2:35 p.m. train in Hoboken if I detrained in Newark. So I decided to do that.
About 1:20 p.m., I returned to my room, packed up all my belongings, and brought my suitcase and suit carrier out to the vestibule. I returned to my room and noticed the new housing that has recently replaced old, abandoned industrial buildings on the outskirts of Newark.
At 1:36 p.m., half an hour early, we arrived on Track 1 at Newark Penn Station. (This was a little surprising to me, as long-distance trains, which often tie up the station track for 5 to 10 minutes while baggage is unloaded, usually are assigned to Track 2). I detrained and gave a $5 tip to my attendant, who had a nice attitude, even though he didn't do very much for me. I had just missed one PATH train, but the next one leaves in 10 minutes, and that would still give me plenty of time to catch my 2:35 p.m. train. I boarded the following PATH train, and when we departed the Newark station at 1:46 p.m., the Crescent was still in the station. Since I had already packed away my scanner, I had no idea what was causing this delay, but I could see that I had made the right decision by getting off in Newark. (According to Amtrak's web site, the train finally arrived in Penn Station, New York at 2:02 p.m.) I made my 2:35 p.m. train without a problem, and used some of the time on the train to work on these memoirs. We arrived at 3:04 p.m. at the historic Anderson Street station, built in 1867 and now the second oldest railroad station in New Jersey. I walked down Anderson Street a few blocks and, after a 20-minute wait, boarded a #175 bus, which took me back to Teaneck.
My trip on the Crescent was pleasant and delightful. My Viewliner accommodations were very nice and the ride, although not exceptionally scenic, was relaxing. Since I had made the same trip just a year ago, I was able to anticipate most of the points of interest along the way. It was a very enjoyable trip.
Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin /
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